LA Opera presents Carmen – A Opera of Romance & Danger

“An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.” – Maria Callas

Los Angeles Opera Company, New production of Carmen by Bizet

Reviewed by Stephen Valentino

Bizet’s Carmen is one of my favorite operas. The opportunity to see a new production is (almost) always a pleasure.

To the singers. I was really thrilled with the performance of Alexander Vinogradov as the Toreador Escamillo. He moves with grace. His body conveyed the message of every lyric that his exquisitely rich and powerfully warm and spinto baritone voice rang out and absolutely won the hearts of the audience as well as this reviewer. Mr. Vinopgradov is a true operatic powerhouse and was, of the three principal performers, the greatest. He could appear in any major opera house in the world as Escamillo.

Ana Maria Martinez plays the title character of Carmen – she was scintillating, beautiful and moved with great grace but vocally she was very uneven. Ms. Martinez’ high notes, which she kept bright and light were well-projected and could be heard but she was using an overly covered sound in her lower range to falsely darken her voice. Without the power to support it, her sound was overwhelmed by the chorus and other singers and had a very muffled and woofy sound to it. I’m not sure why she was doing this or why anybody allowed her to do this, but it is extremely vocally unhealthy to push down on the larynx and cover the tone so much that it goes into the back of the throat, as opposed to being placed in the masque of the face where it rings forth and will not be drowned out by the other cast members.

Don Jose  was played by tenor Riccardo Massi. Frankly he was simply okay in acts 1 2 and 3 but he did blossom and rise to the occasion in Act 4 as he was begging Carmen to leave with him and to be his love forever. Micaela, the home town love of Don Jose, was played by Amanda Woodbury and was gloriously beautiful as Woodbury’s soprano voice rang out through the entire house. The sound was thrilling from beginning to end. 

Highlights of the evening were Carmen’s two friends Frasquita, played by Liv Redpath, and Mercedes, played by Kelly O’Connor. Both were absolutely delightful and their voices both were clear and clean.

Our conductor for the evening was James Conlon. He took the beginning Overture at a slightly frenzied pace but, as we moved through the Opera, he settled in quite nicely and was extremely supportive of his singers. As to the director Ron Daniels, unfortunately I found that he had no sense of how to handle a large group of people and very little of his direction of his stars made any sense to me at all. Though there were many unnecessary movements up and down the stage, the overall effect was extremely static. Large crowds scenes with a chorus milling around aimlessly or worse in place doing virtually nothing distracted from the performance. The highlight, however, was the death scene which was much better in terms of staging and overall production values. The best gauge piece was the Toreador Aria sung by baritone Escamillo which looked like it was directed by somebody who actually did know how to direct, but the fragmented nature of this presentation as a whole left this observer disturbed.

The designs of Denitza Bliznakova, the principal costume designer, showed moments of brilliance but the overall effect certainly left something to be desired. in most cases the costumes were just boring. Yet some pieces worked magnificently – the pieces for the mayor and his lady, the costumes of Act 4, especially the scene at the Plaza De Torreo , and Act Two came fully to life in the Cafe of Lillas Pastia. The costumes for Carmen, Mercedes and Frasquita all looked worked very well in this scene and the quintet was funny and delightful, well supported by what they were provided to wear.

The costuming is one of the visual pleasures of the opera and here, too, it was too often lacking in lushness and verve. I have a great preference for a classic look to Carmen, especially regarding costuming. In particular, Escamillo needs to look the ravishing character that he is. Carmen needs to drip sex when they do dances. They should be using castanets and not relying on the orchestra to anemically play one pair and dancing shoes should have appropriate equipment attached to the bottom of their shoes to get that nice sharp click. The costumes must be lavish and exquisite consistently.

The dancers who open Act 4 with flamenco are stunning and the use of fans was what I found was most effective. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the Children’s Chorus which was completely  adorable and they all sang with such great motivation in their bodies and their voices as you can only expect from wonderful little people and they deserve great acclaim.

I think this Opera is certainly worth attending because Carmen has so many wonderful musical selections in it and there are many worthy singers in the production, so I would give this a grade of a B to B+ and say that it is worth your while to attend but do not expect the most glorious Carmen voice in the world for Miss Martinez is no Marilyn Horne.

Stephen Valentino has enjoyed a decades-long career singing in operas as well as producing and directing them, designing costumes, and conducting opera orchestras.